How Mumbai's street vendors set off a nationwide movement

Carlin Carr, Mumbai Community Manager
Mumbai, 14 May 2015

Hawkers are the lifeblood of Mumbai. Outside office buildings, shirt-and-tied workers pop down to the street vendors for tea, snacks, and lunch. Vibrant street markets with fruit and vegetable stalls bring the products of large supermarkets into local neighborhoods. Street vendors not only make cities more vibrant, but also provide much-need goods and services at affordable prices and with great convenience.

Despite this, street vendors are often seen as a nuisance. In Mumbai, they are largely illegal, even though many of them may have worked in the same stretch for decades. There are an estimated 250,000 hawkers in the city, but the municipal corporation only has 15,000 registered licenses. The number of hawkers in the city soared after the city's textile mills shut down and workers were left to find alternative employment. Out of necessity, many started a small street-side business.

Although hawkers are the city's working poor, their illegal status makes them vulnerable to regular bribery, harassment, and sudden eviction. Mumbai's hawkers unions have made many strides in their decades of work to regularize vendors and to get civil society, the municipal corporation, and the police to see them as valuable contributors to the city. But there are still many hurdles.

Imam Haider, general secretary of All India Trade Union Committee's Hawkers' union, says in the Alternative, "We want that the BMC create proper hawking and non-hawking zones in the city in accordance to the hawking population in the city. It has been 27 years since that SC order. However, Mumbai still lacks of a hawking policy. People living in slums before 1995 are considered legal residents. However, the hawkers here have always been illegal."

In order to push these issues at the city and state level, 40 different hawkers' unions from across Mumbai have come together to form the Pheriwala Action Committee. The federation has elected representatives from the various participating unions and sets out a common agenda to lobby for hawkers' rights at the state level. Similar committees have been set up in other states, including Karnataka. The growing network of state-level federations have joined an even larger force at the national level to effect change in the lives of street vendors at the highest levels.

The National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI) is a federation of 888 street vendor organizations from 23 states. NASVI has been advocating for securing the livelihood of street vendors and successfully pushed for a National Policy for Street Vendors, which was passed in 2004. More recently, the federation gained a big win for hawkers with the Central Act for Street Vendors in 2014. NASVI is now advocating for implementation of the act.

The fight for street vendors' rights has been one that has grown in strength and numbers but is fed by understanding the unique needs of the various hawkers' unions in cities across India. The city-level network has been key in voicing the local needs of Mumbai's street vendors and will continue to play an important role in checking that national policies and acts are enforced at the ground level, ensuring that street vendors across the city have the right to their livelihood and a right to the city.

Photo: Francisco Martins

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